Ken Ham Isn’t a Big Bad Ogre: Why I Feel Bad About Ark Encounter

Like nearly everyone who reads this website, I’ve been vehemently against Ark Encounter since it first came to my attention more than five years ago for seeking tax incentives from Kentucky officials. Beyond being disgruntled that Ken Ham‘s ministry was applying for, then receiving, public money for this anti-science monstrosity, I was also concerned that it was presented as an educational tool for developing minds — not to mention an impressive waste of resources.

I wanted it to fail. I didn’t want it to open. Now I’m counting down the days until it closes.

But there’s another thought that has occasionally weighed on me during this whole saga — the complex feelings of those on the other side. That is to say, the staff at Answers in Genesis and especially Ken Ham.

I’ve never felt that this battle over the Ark has been a “good guys” versus “bad guys” scenario. Tax incentive issues aside, this was always a battle between two sides driven by their beliefs and what they perceive to be in the best interest of mankind.

I’ve met Ken Ham in person and I saw intelligence in his eyes, as I expected to find. Last year, when I attended an Ark Encounter press conference, I was introduced to him by one of AiG’s board members. Cautious that he may dismiss me immediately, I didn’t tell him at first my full name or that I was visiting on behalf of Friendly Atheist.

After the photo (above) was taken, he asked me, “What do you do?”

I replied, “What do I do? I write for FriendlyAtheist.com.”

He unmistakably raised his guard but continued chatting with me. I gave him my assurance that, although I didn’t agree with his ideas, I also didn’t like bad attitudes and I wasn’t about to partake in any name-calling. Just because I disagree with someone doesn’t mean I have to lose my sense of humanity. And contrary to what I knew he saw from the atheist community at large, I didn’t think of him as “stupid.” He’s proven himself to be quite intelligent and crafty in his endeavors, however misguided they may be. If you ask me to describe a Creationist, I’d say they’re “wrong,” “mistaken,” and “unreasonable.” They wouldn’t agree with me, of course, but those adjectives certainly weren’t degrading to the core. Ad hominem attacks are the last resort for people who have nothing intelligent to say. So we kept talking.

“So you call yourself an atheist, right?”

I told him I did.

“I would say you’re probably one of the friendliest atheists I’ve met.”

He began to ask some questions about objective morality — and on what basis atheists like me defined anything as “bad” — but I told him I wasn’t interested in debating. We weren’t going to resolve our differences and I was much more interested in finding out what he was like outside of “debate mode.”

So I tried a different approach: “Are you able to be friends with people who don’t believe?”

By the end of the conversation, we both seemed to agree that we would treat each other with dignity and respect, regardless of our wildly different world views. Ten minutes later, Ham approached me again and handed me his business card. He told me I should write to him sometime.

“Tell your atheist friends that I’m not a big bad ogre.”

I couldn’t resist capping off that pleasant exchange with a request of my own: Did he want to grab lunch sometime? He warmly accepted.

I had to assume all bets were off a month later after I published an article regarding aspects of Ark Encounter’s funding that weren’t being openly discussed.

Answers in Genesis never publicly acknowledged what I wrote, but I had heard through the grapevine that they were aware of the piece and dismissed it as false. If that were true, I figured, they could have easily offered evidence to the contrary. That evidence never appeared, and the lack of transparency was even more damning. I meant no personal harm to Ken Ham when I wrote that, though I would have understood if he was offended since the project was so closely tied to his identity.

All humans are fallible. We all have our defense mechanisms and we all put up smokescreens at times. In the case of Ken Ham, a man who is fervently confident about literal truth of the Book of Genesis even though it defies everything we know about the physical world, I can see a tension within him.

After moving to the U.S. from Australia in 1987, Ham published his first book, The Lie. It was a surprise hit with the Christian right, going through several printings. With luck, timing, and that captivating Aussie accent, he was able to attract and hire an echo chamber of Ph.D.s and other scholars (albeit a very small crowd compared to the opposition) to constantly reaffirm his certainty that the Bible was literally true. It was a symbiotic relationship: He had the support of people with impressive degrees while they had a vehicle with which to advance their biblical beliefs about science. They could also deflect outside attacks that threatened the community’s self-created confirmation bias.

It makes a lot of sense why that would be appealing to someone like Ham. Death is scary. And the secular version of what happens isn’t necessarily full of hope. Without God, we’re of no particular importance. We’re just electrically charged bags of water that developed a conscience, clinging to a ball made of molten iron and nickel, waiting to be devoured in flames by our own star. We’re probably just one of billions and billions of sentient life forms throughout the universe to have come into existence and we will likely be stamped out without a trace.

I would love to believe in an afterlife — preferably one with a less tyrannical god than the one worshiped by the Abrahamic religions — but my wish doesn’t negate the reality in front of me. I have found purpose and happiness despite not believing in any god. I care about people and the quality of each person’s life, understanding how fortunate I am to have this one shot. I don’t want anyone to feel pain, regardless of who they are or how much we do or don’t agree on a particular issue. That extends to Ken Ham, a human, a husband, a father, and a mentor to many.

It’s easy to demonize someone like him since he represents so much of what we’re all passionately against when it comes to science. It’s easy to create a caricature of him. But how many of us know anything about his family? His children and grandchildren? What he does in his free time? We often toss a black cloak over the endearing qualities of the person we’re fighting so they’re nothing more than a beastly shell, pleasurably primal to tear down. I myself am guilty of this, and I’m making a concerted effort to do better.

But when Ark Encounter finally opened a couple of weeks ago, I was ready for battle. I fully expected I’d be sitting in traffic at the off-ramp, standing in a series of queued lines, fighting to get a closer view of exhibits. Essentially, I bought into Ham’s projections of opening day — I expected his best, and my worst, scenario.

That’s not what I saw.

I saw parking lot attendants who must have been bored. I saw atheist protesters situated at the highway exit with few cars to flash their signs at. There was no urgency for me to get in line because there was no line. So I spent more time at the protest before heading over to the Ark at noon to check it out for myself.

Suddenly it made sense to me why my ticket, which I purchased back in March, was different than that of a friend who had purchased his a week before the Park’s opening. 

When I purchased my ticket, I had to select a date and time window for its use. I chose July 7 (Opening Day), from 9:00a – 2:00p. My friend’s ticket was good anytime through Dec. 31, 2017. Forget a time frame; he barely had an expiration date.

It indicated that Ark Encounter anticipated having to orchestrate the rush of people on Opening Day by breaking them into timed groups. But as ticket sales lagged, that wasn’t such a problem anymore. People could buy tickets that essentially worked any day at any time.

When I pulled into the parking lot at noon, there was nobody in front of me or behind me. I entered the building situated in the middle of the parking lot to redeem my ticket and got onboard the Ark-bound shuttle. At the time, there was no one else on there. Eventually, the shuttle loaded about half a dozen people, an acceptable amount to begin its drive down the trail. I was expecting to get off the shuttle and follow the crowd to the entrance… but when we arrived, that rush wasn’t there. I ended up walking in through the exit and wandered around for 15 minutes before an employee directed me to the actual entrance. He told me I wasn’t the first person to find myself in this predicament because others had been making the same mistake all day. Another couple near me had the same question: “Where’s the entrance?” As I headed back in the proper direction, I heard someone else yell out, “You guys need signs!”

When I finally discovered the entrance, at about 1:00p, this is what I saw:

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The rest of my visit has been pretty well documented.

I saw Ken Ham inside the Ark and he seemed pretty cheerful. Microphone in hand, he was conducting mini-interviews with the crowd huddled around him. When I was next in line to speak with him, we locked eyes long enough for him to recognize my face… and he quickly turned back around.

I understood why, though I wasn’t going to embarrass him. Mostly, I wanted to congratulate him on his big day. Say what you will about the Ark, this was a $100 million project that took several years of work to become a reality. That’s not easy to pull off (even with the generous tax incentive).

But I really wanted to know… behind the chipper veil, how was he really feeling about the low attendance?

It wasn’t long before I found out. And then I felt even worse.

A week after the opening of Ark Encounter, Ham posted a video online featuring drone footage taken on Opening Day along with his commentary. What you hear are the words of a man clearly in denial about the turnout. He states that cars are “pouring in,” while the image of a sparsely filled parking lot is right in front of us.

Traffic now, cars, starting to pour in to the parking lot for Opening Day. We’re open from 9:00a to midnight tonight.

One car is pulling into the parking lot.

We’re filling one side of the parking lot first, and then, just like the [Creation] Museum, it’s gonna increase in numbers from now through the afternoon.

There were fewer cars by noon. (see below)

Cars are just coming in one after the other, but we’ve got plenty of room for lots of people.

Zero cars are coming in.

So we’ll see if we can show you here, the cars, the Ark in the background

As the drone camera pans around to show the Ark, it seems like someone is intentionally trying not to show the empty parking lot. Realizing that’s unavoidable, Ham comments,

[Softly] The other side of the parking lot we’ll fill next…

[With more excitement] Ah! You can just see the Ark in the background there.

What we wanted to do right now is, we’re in the parking lot because I wanted to show you the cars are just coming in. We’re on the entrance road right here, and there’s cars coming in one after the other… We want to show you all these cars, first of all. There’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people already here, and we expect thousands today.

As he says that, there’s one car coming in, and two cars leaving.

At noon, when Ham said he expected attendance to pick up, another drone caught a glimpse of the entire parking lot.

Photo: Brendan Hall / Bill Nye Film
Photo: Brendan Hall / Bill Nye Film

I zoomed in on that high resolution image and counted the cars. Of the 4,000 parking spaces, only 747 are filled, not including a small handful of R.V.s. That’s 20% capacity — and it’s generous considering that the employees must have accounted for some of the vehicles.

If the parking lot wasn’t filled up on Opening Day, on what other day of the year would it ever come close? A grim prediction for an optimistic slab of asphalt.

Another peculiar video I saw after the fact was taken by Ham from on top of the Ark as he watched a bus drop off visitors. It was taken Saturday, July 9th, two days after the grand opening.

It really gives you that feeling of, uh, like being at Disney, when the people are coming in on the shuttle buses. They get off, first of all want to take some photographs… it’s so exciting to see all these families coming in.

Positively nothing about this scene resembles Disney. At best, a dozen people are visible in the shot, walking along a row of porta-potties and construction fencing. It’s just a drab, depressing scene.

What we’re witnessing in real time is not up for dispute. Ken Ham can’t dismiss the naysayers with his infamous rebuttal, “Were you there?” Because, yes, we are there, right alongside him.

It takes strength and humility to admit you were wrong, and not everyone is capable of such a thing. Imagine having to admit you were wrong about a quest that took $100 million and several years to achieve. A quest that you had to fight tooth and nail for, against a vocal segment of the public, against most of the scientific establishment, and against a team of lawyers. Ham doesn’t need to concede the whole project was a failure, but he’s also not admitting the obvious. It would be admirable and humanizing to hear him admit the first week’s attendance was nowhere near what his staff projected.

I don’t want that admission out of blood-thirst for his pride. More than anything, I think it would help ease tensions between Ham and his atheist critics to hear some relatable fallibility in his tone.

As we’ve said on this site already, Ark Encounter’s attendance appears to be on pace with the state’s projections — far lower than AiG’s privately ordered projections that they built the park around. If the pace holds up, there will be less than a quarter of the people visiting the Park than anticipated.

The bright side to that is that AiG would be receiving far less of the state’s $62 million in tax increment financing and $18 million in sales tax rebates, a minor win for the cause of church/state separation.

The down side, however, would be that bond investors would face a loss on investments they made based on overly optimistic attendance projections. The city of Williamstown would also be let down after recreating itself as a tourist destination. And park employees may take the grunt of scaling back.

Another silver lining? Maybe this sort of project won’t happen again anytime soon. (I’m probably being too optimistic.)

We should never be silent about the government funding religious missions, or myth being taught as fact, or science education being bastardized. But we are in a position to do all of these things while showing mercy to the human condition. Let’s remind ourselves that every person has arrived at their state of belief and understanding through matters they don’t have complete control over.

We don’t choose our parents, our brain chemistry, or the unexpected circumstances that shape us. While we all have our own journeys to atheism, it’s entirely possible that many of us, if not for that one conversation with a friend or that book we picked up at just the right time, would still be religious. Calling people names and wishing for them to suffer won’t cure them of their inability to see the world how you want them to. It’s just a misdirection of your own frustrations.

In the coming months — and it may even stretch out for years — I suspect we’ll see a decline in attendance to Ark Encounter. We may cheer about that, but don’t forget about all those people who gave up so much of their time and money and passion in making it a reality because they felt this was a God-guided mission. They’ll have to come to terms with how God’s vision didn’t quite pan out as they expected. They don’t need us to rub it in every time.

By the way, Ken, if you’re reading this (and I know you are), I’m still up for grabbing lunch with you.

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